Berkeley Rep is staging “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. It is a drama that exposes the prejudices and myths held by everyone in the small cast (five actors playing two couples and a teenage nephew). The couples represent 4 different ethnic groups, and the nephew, like the main character Amir, is Muslim.
The play opens in the chic upper East Side Manhattan apartment of Emily and Amir. Emily (Nisi Sturgis) is the blond, wasp-y wife of dark skinned Amir (Bernard White). She is an artist who is painting a portrait of him based on Velázquez’s “The Moor.” Amir is testy about this as he is sensitive about being identified as a Muslim. When questioned by the Jewish partners in his law firm about passing himself off as an Indian, he argued that Pakistan was India in the days his parents lived there. Amir has also changed his name for practicality.
His nephew Abe (Behzad Dabu) comes to ask his legal help in getting his iman released from suspicion of aiding terrorists. Amir berates him for his hypocrisy of changing his name from Hussein to Abe Jensen despite Amir’s own name change. Amir then denies helping the iman, while Emily berates him for always distancing himself from his people.
When the “New York Times” comes out with an article that suggests Amir was supportive of the iman, his Jewish law partners are offended. One of them is a fund-raiser for the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It also complicates matters that Amir hopes to make partner soon.
Subsequently come complex and increasingly heated encounters with friends, the married couple Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), a secular Jew and his African American wife Jory (Zakiya Young), who is a lawyer in Amir’s firm.
The explosive dinner party brings out the innate prejudices and shocking behavior of the four characters, all from different ethnicities. At one point the audience made a collective gasp at at the riveting action.
The final scene, when Abe and Emily come to the apartment from where Amir is removing all their gear, turns into a very sad discussion of FBI brutality and the hopelessness of young Muslims like Abe living in America. And the evening of the opening of “Disgraced” at the Berkeley Rep. was the weekend of the Paris massacre that weighed heavily on the production and all in attendance.
“Disgraced” turns up-side down the idea of affirmative action, of coalescence and understanding of diverse peoples and of any hopeful solutions to the differences that divide us. The only non political part of the discussion is the aesthetic discussion between Isaac and Emily of oriental versus western art. But here too the differences are are deep and irrevocable in both the art and the attitudes of the people.
“Disgraced” creates opinionated discussions audience members. It is a very intelligent play that is well-written and acted. Kimberly Senior directed here as well as for the Broadway premiere. John Lee Beatty’s scenic design perfectly replicates the chic upper Manhattan apartment of the up-scale couple. The windows reveal the brick walls of neighboring buildings; also there is a terrace off the dining area where people can cool down from their fury.
Jennifer Von Mayhauser’s costumes are apt the artistic wife — jeans and all—-and for Amir, lawyer garb with $600 shirts. Christine A. Binder’s lighting helps to intensify the action when necessary and Jill DuBoff’s sound design is just right so that when windows are open, the sounds of the City come in.
There are ample good reasons to make trips to Berkeley for the theater this month. Continuing at the Berkeley Rep’s. alternative space is “The Hypocrites’ ‘The Pirates of Penzance’” through December 20, the Aurora Theatre’s “The Monster-Builder” through December 6 and “Disgraced” at the Main Stage of Berkeley Rep also through December 20. I found all three wonderful.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley. Tickets for “Disgraced:” 510 647 2929. Or go online.
© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.